The 617th SOAD and 3rd Battalion,
7th SFG in Panama, 1989–1990
Abstract Frequent training between the 617th Special Operations Aviation Detachment and 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (3-7th SFG) in the months prior to Operations JUST CAUSE and PROMOTE LIBERTY laid the foundation for the accomplishment of key high-risk missions in Panama. Refined tactics, mutual trust, and interoperability were central to special operations successes during the U.S. invasion and stabilization of the Central American country from 20 December 1989 to 31 December 1990.
On 20 December 1989, thirty-three Special Forces (SF) soldiers from Company C, 3-7th SFG fast roped onto the roof of the Contraloria General building to stop radio broadcasts encouraging violence against U.S. forces during the early hours of Operation JUST CAUSE. The mission required precision flying in dangerous conditions. Several weeks later, Operational Detachments-Alpha (ODAs) from 3-7th SFG established a forward operating base south of the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range, from where they conducted stability operations in the area around David. Getting to David required a high risk flight across the mountains, descending through heavy cloud cover over the Pacific Ocean. Success in those missions was largely dependent on established interoperability with the 617th Special Operations Aviation Detachment (SOAD).
1 LTC David E. McCracken, Memorandum for Curator, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School Museum, “SUBJECT: Note of Explanation with Company Guidon-C-3-7th SFG,” 14 July 1992, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Email from COL (Ret.) David E. McCracken to Robert D. Seals, “SUBJECT: Initial Items for C/3-7th SFG Vignette,” 26 January 2019, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
2 CW5 (Ret.) Daniel Jollota, interview by Dr. Joshua D. Esposito, 18 June 2019, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Jollota interview, 18 June 2019.
The 617th was a company of five MH-60A Black Hawk helicopters operationally controlled by, and stationed in Panama with Special Operations Command-South (SOCSOUTH). Activated in October 1987, it provided the majority of Army Special Operations Aviation support to the theater special operations command’s special operations forces (SOF), which included 3-7th SFG. In September 1989, the 617th was reorganized and administratively placed under the newly established 3rd Battalion, 160th Aviation.
3 Kenneth Finlayson, “A Tale of Two Units: The 129th Assault Helicopter Company,” Veritas: Journal of Army Special Operations History, 3:1 (2007), 69.
4 Pilots, crew, and maintainers from the 129th Special Operations Aviation Company, Hunter Army Airfield, GA, deployed to Panama on four to six month rotations to fill out the 617th, until the detachment received its own aircraft and official manning in March 1989. CW5 (Ret.) Charles Lapp, interview by Dr. Joshua D. Esposito, 12 July 2019, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Lapp interview, 12 July 2019; Finlayson, “A Tale of Two Units,” 70.
5 The 617th SOAD was initially part of the 129th Aviation Company, headquartered at Hunter Army Airfield (AAF), GA. The 129th was inactivated in 1989, with assets transferring to the newly constituted and activated 3rd Battalion, 160th Aviation. See: Department of the Army General Order No. 3, “Organizational Actions of Units to Form the 160th Aviation Regiment Under the U.S. Army Regimental System (USARS),” 16 January 1988, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. In 1995 the 617th became Company D, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and in 2003 it relocated to Hunter AAF alongside 3/160. It was reorganized into the headquarters and headquarters company (HHC) for the newly established 4th Battalion, 160th SOAR (4/160) in 2007. While the 617th manpower and platforms were eventually used to establish HHC/4/160, Company C, 3/160 retained the mission to support U.S. Southern Command.